Umbrella Movement / September 2016 (Issue 33)

On Anger and Love, in Post-Occupy Hong Kong

by Timothy O'Leary

I remember watching a documentary at home in Ireland, when I was about eighteen years old, about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay city official in San Francisco, who was assassinated in 1978. The one detail of that film that has stayed with me ever since was a scene from a commemorative march after the assassination, which was peaceful, perhaps even silent. As the mourners move solemnly through the street, a passerby begins to shout at them, "Where is your anger? Where is your anger?"

Many years later, on October 6th, 2015, I myself co-organised a silent protest march at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). That protest was, for me as well as for my fellow teachers and students, driven by strong emotions. In my case, mostly anger. In the following months, I participated in other protests, in which the anger, the shouting and the slogans were at the forefront. But I never felt comfortable at those events.

Today, two years after the Umbrella Movement, and one year after one of its many after-shocks hit the University of Hong Kong, the emotions unleashed by Occupy and the stalled political reform process continue to move this city. Each of us, whether locally born, or Permanent Resident, or more temporary visitor, must decide how to process, reflect and act upon these emotions.

I spoke at my first political rally in August 2014. As Head of the School of Humanities at HKU, I had made a public statement in support of the 511 students who were arrested at a peaceful sit-in on the night of July 1st. So they asked me to come to a rally to speak about the principle of civil disobedience, on the doorstep of Wan Chai Police Headquarters. Back in August 2014, the disobedience in Hong Kong was very civil indeed. I remember a young police officer very politely helping me to cross a cordon, so I could enter the backstage area. Martin Lee spoke before me. He spoke in Cantonese, so I couldn't understand what he was saying, but he was speaking in very measured, very reasonable tones. Then I gave a short talk on the philosophical basis for the idea of civil disobedience, with the help of simultaneous translation by Alex Chow. People laughed when I made a joke about CY Leung's lawlessness, so I knew they were following my speech. But the tone was calm, relaxed, attentive. After me, Longhair Leung spoke. As far as I remember, he was holding a copy of Gandhi's writings. Satyagraha meets Che Guevara outside the Wan Chai Police Headquarters, and even though he spoke with more obvious passion than either I or Martin Lee had done, the mood was still calm, cool, almost academic.

The only ominous sign at that event was that some of the police were carrying odd looking poles strapped to their backs, that looked almost like samurai swords. Nobody I asked seemed to know what they were, but they later became well-known, the infamous "Stop or we will shoot" crowd-control banners mounted on wooden poles.

In late September 2014, I went to Australia to visit my daughters. I don't remember if Benny Tai had declared Occupy before I left; what I do remember is that I was in Canberra on September 28th when I heard news of the police use of tear gas. The emotions I felt in that moment were very intense. I felt a strong urge to go back to Hong Kong. This was driven by the sense of responsibility I felt towards the students who were leading the protests. Many students from HKU were of course involved, but it wasn't just about "my" students, it was a feeling about all the students who were involved, from universities and secondary schools across Hong Kong. The same students I had seen sitting peacefully on the street outside Wan Chai Police Headquarters in August, eager to learn about the principles of civil disobedience, were now wearing homemade gas masks and brandishing umbrellas on the streets of Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok. I didn't think I could do anything for them, and I wasn't planning to fight with the police myself, but I felt a strong urge to go back.

The next day, I went to the campus of the Australian National University in Canberra. One of the first things I saw was a small group of students from Hong Kong who had set up a table with a petition. I don't remember what the petition was asking for, or who it was addressed to, but the students were handing out yellow ribbons to people who signed it. I was taken aback by the strength of my emotional response. I went straight up to talk to them, and I felt like hugging them. I wanted them to understand that I too was a Hongkonger, even though I couldn't speak their language. I signed the petition, took a photo with them, all of us wearing our yellow ribbons. When I met my daughter, I took her back to the table to sign the petition and got a yellow ribbon for her, too. It felt like such a small and futile gesture, but at that time, it was all I could do.

That was the moment I realised I loved Hong Kong. Not in the sense of loving the food, the street life, the people, the culture—in a way that even a tourist might love a city. But in some deeper, more lasting way. I had now lived in Hong Kong longer than in any other place in my adult life; it had become my home.

As I wrote this reflection, in September 2016, I attended a seminar by a former Hong Kong University professor who was returning to HKU to talk about the current political situation. She began her talk by saying that she had "a strong emotional attachment" to Hong Kong. I began to think about what that means exactly, to have a strong emotional attachment to a place. What struck me is that it means that all the emotions one feels about the place are intensified. Not just love, admiration, respect, but also fear, anxiety and anger.

There is a widely received idea that the first of these (love, admiration, respect) are positive emotions, while the latter (fear, anxiety, anger) are negative. I have always found that characterisation to be inadequate. Emotions are emotions, they move us in all sorts of ways, sometimes in ways that can be called positive, sometimes negative. But no emotion is inherently either positive or negative. Anger, anxiety and fear are quite often exactly the right things to be feeling. In the summer of 2015, I began thinking about this theoretical question in the context of my own very real, steadily growing anger about what was happening at HKU.

Two things made me angry that summer. First, there was the growing attack on the reported nominee for the position of Vice-President (Staffing and Resources) at HKU. Professor Johannes Chan, the former Dean of the Faculty of Law, was widely reported to be the nominee for this senior position, but he was being viciously attacked in mainland-owned media outlets (in particular Wen Wei Po). Professor Chan was Dean at the time that Benny Tai, of the Department of Law, founded Occupy Central with Love and Peace. Even though Chan had already stepped down from his Deanship and was out of Hong Kong during the Autumn of 2014, it seemed that he was being held personally responsible for nurturing Occupy and the Umbrella Movement. Second, it seemed that HKU Council was wavering in the face of this mounting criticism. Earlier, Arthur Li, a notorious pro-establishment figure, had been appointed to the Council by the Chief Executive CY Leung. Then, in August 2015, the Council postponed its decision on the appointment on the grounds that they needed to wait for a new Provost to be appointed (an appointment which has still not been made in September 2016). All during August 2015, as colleagues began to trickle back to Hong Kong from holidays and research trips, there was a mounting sense of anger. My anger came from the sense that forces were at play that were willing to undermine the university in order to inflict misguided revenge, and also to teach a lesson—a lesson of fear—to academics and students across Hong Kong. The absurdity of the "waiting for the Provost" excuse seemed especially designed to elicit academic ire. How stupid did they take us to be?

At the same time, I was receiving calls from journalists asking me when the staff were going to do something. I had the same question myself, but I told the journalists that once everyone was back, something was sure to happen. Nothing did happen until September 29th, 2015. That night, the HKU Council voted to reject the nomination of Chan for the position. In the following days, I brought together a small group of colleagues from Law and Social Science to organise a protest event. What was the mood on campus in those days? Anger, frustration and fear. I mentioned to a colleague that I was organising a protest, and she said something like, "You can say goodbye to your career." The protest we organised took place one week after the Council decision, on October 6th, 2015. The original idea of holding a one-minute silence near the library had grown into a silent march across campus, dressed in academic gowns or in black. There were no banners, no slogans, no shouting. There was to be one speech only, delivered by me at the bottom of the Sun Yat Sen steps near the Main Library. As we made plans over the weekend, we thought maybe 50–100 staff would join us. Our fear was that nobody would show up, because nobody cared. But, on the day, more than 2,000 academics, administrators and students joined the protest.

There was something very eerie and moving about that march. As we set off, a huge wall of journalists and photographers backed away in front of us. We walked, slowly, silently, firmly, with the lunchtime crowds scrambling to get out of our path. If they hadn't heard about the protest in advance, they would have been bewildered by what they saw. Just before I left my office, one of my daughters rang me and asked if I was nervous about the protest and about the speech I was going to make. It was a well-timed question, because it forced me to pay attention to what I was actually feeling. What was it? Anger? Trepidation? Anxiety? My answer, as far as I remember, was that I felt grim determination. I think the photographs of that day convey that, too. The faces are stony, set, serious, grim.

In January 2016, I spoke at a rally in Central that protested against the appointment of Arthur Li as Chairman of HKU Council. Two elements of my experience that day frame my own thinking about anger and politics. After I spoke, a leading figure in the pan-Democratic camp remarked to me that she thought anger was the refuge of the powerless. I was a bit surprised by this, but I didn't really have a response to make at the time. Then, after all the speeches had been made, I was encouraged to take part in the protest march to Government House. I was given a placard to hold, but since it was written in Chinese and I couldn't understand it, I managed to hand it on to somebody else. Then I was asked to stand in the front row holding the main banner. I was a little reluctant to do this, but I finally agreed. As we set off, preceded as usual by the press and the police, we began to chant some slogans. These were all in Cantonese, except one: "Arthur Li, You Will Pay." Of course, I knew that this was an allusion to Li's reported intimidation of an academic many years earlier with the words "you will pay." But, despite my opposition to the system that allows Hong Kong's Chief Executive to appoint the Chairman of HKU Council, and despite my belief that Arthur Li was not a good candidate for the position, I nevertheless was not comfortable walking through Central chanting "Arthur Li, You Will Pay."

Is this simply because I am a mild-mannered academic who is not used to marching and chanting anything at all? Partly, yes. But it is also because, even though I wasn't prepared to reject anger as the last resort of the powerless, I also wasn't prepared to give vent to my anger in this particular way.

In August 2016, a visiting American philosopher spoke in Hong Kong about anger and justice. I wasn't able to attend her talk, but I heard (perhaps inaccurately) that her argument was basically that anger is a bad thing—at least, a bad thing in the context of political conflict and struggle. There it was again, the idea that anger is a negative and destructive emotion, one that should be excluded from politics and from public discourse. But if we exclude anger from public life, don't we also exclude love? Is it possible to limit our strong emotional attachments to the so-called positive emotions?

The question, in public and private life, is not whether our emotions are "positive" or "negative," but how we deal with them, how we act on them, how we let them guide us. When the passerby at the Harvey Milk memorial demanded "Where is your anger?" he didn't realise that there was already a great deal of anger there, silently, in the street. Anger doesn't always come in the form of shouting, abuse or violence, just as love isn't always gentle, caring and supportive. But anger, like love, can be hard to handle. As Aristotle recognised, "Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody's power and is not easy." We can add that being angry in the right way sometimes doesn't look like anger at all. Sometimes, in its silence, it might make people wonder where our anger is, but that doesn't mean that it is any less present, both as a guide and a motivator. The challenge for all of us in a post-Occupy Hong Kong is to hold on to both our anger and our love, and to learn how to let them guide us—to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way. Like love, anger is sometimes silent, but it moves us nonetheless.

September 5th, 2016

 Timothy O'Leary has lived in Hong Kong since 2001, having previously lived in Australia, France, and Ireland. He is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the School of Humanities at HKU, where he is also an elected member of HKU Council. He has written extensively on the work of Michel Foucault, especially in relation to ethics, aesthetics, and the powers of fiction. He co-founded the group HKU Vigilance and is also a founding member (and Secretary) of the newly-formed PEN Hong Kong. If forced to choose between reading a philosophy paper or a poem, he will invariably choose the latter.
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